Finding Hope in Books, Quick Thoughts

There’s a fifth book out in the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders. Thus far, I’ve only posted here about The March North (an oversight on my part), but I love the whole series. I acknowledge freely that this series is not for everyone—it is not particularly accessible to a casual read—but there’s something to this series that I love, and which moves me in ways that I haven’t found regularly in books for quite a while.

A brief jaunt sideways: I have been a long-standing fan of the Ring of Fire series, started by Eric Flint with the book 1632. At this point it’s long, involved, and serpentine in its narrative’s twists and turns across concurrent books, but I have continued to read (almost) every new entry in the series. For a long time this series was comfort food. Even as I came to recognize the ways in which its idealized portrayal of a particularly inclusive and community-based set of American beliefs didn’t always match history (and didn’t include as many kinds of people as I’d like it to), the idealism that served the series as its foundation was heart-warming and reassuring. We’re better off working together, we’re better off including people and sharing our beliefs, we’re better off helping each other. We can disagree and still find ways to build together. We are stronger together than we are apart, and people are the heart of a nation; aristocracy, as a tiny and overly self-centered fraction of the populace, is at its best an ornamental contributor which can do the most good by advocating for and making space and prosperity for those less well-off than themselves.

It’s obvious why the series felt so comforting when I compare that message with the messages told by many of the other authors I was reading when I started the Ring of Fire series. 1632 was uplifting where other stories were dour, it embraced community where the others proclaimed lonely individualism as the only option, and it had people working together to make a better future where other stories showed people scrabbling against each other to come out on top. For all that I now see gaps in the stories, the Ring of Fire series felt like a salve. It was hopeful.

Which brings me back to the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders.

This series caught me on so many levels.

On the surface, it’s refreshing to find books which frequently make use of gender neutral pronouns and don’t bother to gender most characters, while also making it clear that there are a variety of people and genders present rather than letting the reader always assume that “unmarked” means “male.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to find books which so clearly include a wide variety of sexual preferences and orientations as utterly normal. Saunders does an excellent job of creating a setting in which people are welcomed and in which persecution along our own societies’ fracture lines feels alien and anathema.

But the philosophical and ethical determination underpinning the Commonweal is even more inspiring, and it’s all the better for the way in which Saunders bakes the Commonweal’s principles into the narrators’ assumptions and reasoning. Because all of the books are written in the first person (though the narrators vary), these principles are revealed gradually as people wrestle with moral and ethical quandaries or face the unthinkable.

How does one best further the survival of the Peace without exercising dominion or exalting anyone over anyone else? How can a society faced with extinction-level threats move itself into the future without sacrificing its ideals? And how can powerful people exist in such a society when their own capabilities may threaten that society?

How can societies which assume the equality of their members and acknowledge the personhood of outsiders persist in a dangerous world? And what does doing that look like… in a world wracked by a calamity of wizards and all the damage of millennia of magical war?

Which brings me to the setting itself, which continues to delight me. As someone who grew up on genre fiction and learned early on that sometimes settings just didn’t make sense (and that that was okay), it’s a treat to find a setting which digs deep into the reality of a world in which “a wizard did it” is both an explanation and a curse. Even better, it very seriously examines how a community of mostly not-wizards can survive when magic users have existed in a Hobbesian state of nature for long enough to twist much of the world into a fire-and-forget arsenal of “war by other means.”

It’s a deeply nerdy exploration.

And the answer is: that’s hard.

But it’s a story about a community that is dedicated to not only surviving, but to not compromising on their fundamental ethical ideals. And that feels good to me.

It matters that those ideals are ones which appeal to me, of course.

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is one of the few other books I’ve read recently that feel similar. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower fits too. Not, in either case, because the writing is similar… but because the feeling of hope and perseverance despite obvious terrible circumstances is so powerful.

I’ll have to write more about this series again later, but I strongly recommend The Commonweal. If you’re good with trying military fiction, start with The March North. If you’d rather read about experimental transhuman wizard school, start with A Succession of Bad Days.

All the Plagues of Hell, by Flint and Freer

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A little context: I’ve enjoyed the previous entries in the Heirs of Alexandria series, and I read All the Plagues of Hell right after reading a much worse book in a different series (which shall remain unnamed).

I thought All the Plagues of Hell was quite good.

There were a few elements to it that frustrated me, which I’ll detail later, but for the most part I had a great time with it. Better yet, it provided an exceptionally good counterpoint to Continue reading

Maelstrom, by Taylor Anderson

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Having just finished reading Maelstrom, I’m officially downgrading this series from “potentially profoundly interesting” to “some variety of popcorn lit.”  You know, the stuff that you’ll compulsively eat without thinking too hard about it: sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but more often it’s just there and you don’t bother to stop yourself.  This series is alt-history tech-bootstrapping military fiction with a very particular set of idealized social dynamics, and as of now it doesn’t look like it will stretch beyond that.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; popcorn lit is definitionally good enough that I’ll pick it up and breeze through it simply for the pleasure of reading it, provided I’m in the right mood.  But it also hasn’t lived up to my hopes of offering more introspection on any of its various conflicts, or breaking further from its genre precedents in an interesting fashion.

I should note that it’s hard for most novels to make it past my popcorn lit category, and the category itself encompasses an almost unhelpfully wide spread of books; furthermore, I can’t pretend to be better than that myself, as I doubt any of my own short stories would qualify as anything but popcorn lit.

I won’t say that the series can’t ever be anything but popcorn lit.  Some of the future books may deliver answers to the niggling contentions I’m sharing with you here.  But thus far my hopes for what I’ll call “deeper” material have not been met.  Specifically, I want Anderson to go deeper into examining the cultural conflicts inherent between the Americans and their various allies, and I especially want him to include the perspective of Lemurians who truly don’t have specified gender roles or gender/sex expectations.  It seems like he’s introduced the Lemurians (the cat-/lemur-like creatures with whom the Americans allied in the first book) as being without specific gender roles, but when we’re treated to the perspective of a Lemurian there are a number of basic social operating assumptions that appear to be based in a society more similar to our own, one which certainly embraces a number of implicitly gender- or sex-based values.  If Anderson wants to write the human perspectives in his book with those value assumptions in place, that’s ok by me, even if I don’t like it.  But much like my love for and disappointment with the use of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I find it frustrating that Anderson should introduce an ostensibly gender- and sex- blind culture and then not do them the justice of writing from a gender- and sex-blind perspective.  I have to give Taylor Anderson credit for trying, and it seems like he might not be aware of how he’s failing to deliver here, but that doesn’t make it un-frustrating.

More after the break.

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Crusade, by Taylor Anderson

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I just finished reading Crusade last night, the second book in Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.  It still hits that oddly specific sweet spot I mentioned before, with alt-history technological bootstrapping and idealized social dynamics being the name of the game.  I believe I referred to Into the Storm as a strange mix of Stirling and Flint, but I’ve come to a better understanding of these books’ oddly specific conflux of flavors.  To envision Anderson’s style, strip away most of Stirling‘s semi-religious influences and replace what remains with faith in Honor and Doing What’s Right, convert Flint‘s cheerfully proletariat bonhomie into something just a bit more hierarchical, and toss in Weber or Ringo‘s blood-spattered military adventurism.  Now you’ve got a good approximation of Anderson.  (Just to be clear, I don’t expect any Oh John Ringo No! moments).

This second book in the series sticks with the same characters we met in the first one, and expands the cast slightly to give us a better perspective of the foes our protagonists face.  The setting remains the same, and the various characters on the ship are still wonderful to follow around.  I still sometimes felt like I was reading about a Chopper’s gang from Apocalypse World, and the sometimes aggressive, sometimes malicious pranking and posturing of the crew is reminiscent of my own experiences of living with a large group of other young men.  People are convincingly selfish and obsessive about their various areas of responsibility, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the gradual induction of non-human characters into the ship’s crew and watching how they adapt to their duties and adopt the mannerisms of the other characters around them.

Ok, speaking of adapting, I need to mention something that I brought up last time as a concern; Anderson very carefully carries through on representing stereotypical 1940s gender roles, and I found that a bit off-putting (not the accuracy, but the roles and expectations themselves).  Fortunately, since the American humans aren’t the only culture in the book, there are groups of characters who aren’t bound by those gender-strictures.  But Crusade doesn’t look much deeper into the disconnect between the human conceptions of propriety and the conceptions of their new Lemurian allies.  I said that I’d be dissatisfied if that didn’t change… and it didn’t really change, and I am dissatisfied.  At the same time, the topic has certainly been discussed (briefly, or as a source of disconcertion) by the characters even if not much has come of it thus far, and it looks like there may be more change coming down the line.  My guess would be that such change will inevitably be lower priority for the story than the themes of military and honor, but I’ll keep reading and keep hoping that the change will come some point soon.  At a guess, the alteration of gender expectations will come about as a fait accompli as more of the humans die and are replaced by Lemurians.  Go figure.

Those quibbles aside, I’m still enjoying the series.  If you liked the sound of the style amalgamation I described above, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

Into the Storm, by Taylor Anderson

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This book falls into a strangely particular sweet spot for me; there’s something about the alt-history technological bootstrapping genre that I find appealing, and the obviously idealized social dynamics presented in this book are endearing if not convincing.  Furthermore, S.M. Stirling’s cover blurb pulled me over the edge into reading it.  I was not quite as automatically engrossed as he apparently was, but Into The Storm has made excellent reading material while I’ve been laid up following an unfortunate paintball incident.

The basic concept is very simple, transposing an American WWI destroyer caught in action against the Japanese at the opening of WWII from our world into an alternate world in which (more or less) the dinosaurs never really died away.  The story is all about the destroyer’s crew doing their best to survive in a strange new world, and doing what they can to find friends who might be able to help them keep their ship operating instead of simply falling apart.  It feels a little like S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time crossed with Eric Flint’s 1632, but instead of dealing with a town or island it focuses entirely on a very small warship.  The crew is wonderfully convincing, right down to their malicious pranking and oddly neurotic idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy following all of their various perspectives as the story progresses.  The crew actually reminds me a little of the residents of an Apocalypse World hardhold or members of a Chopper’s gang.

Now, when I say “endearing if not convincing” up above, I don’t mean to disparage the author’s conception of hierarchical systems founded on an egalitarian society.  As it’s presented, it seems to work pretty well.  But the author’s clear preference for the system by which ‘the good guys’ operate is so transparent that I feel unable to accept it at face value.  I don’t have experience with living and working on a US Navy vessel, I have no idea whether or not Anderson’s description is anything like the truth, and I suspect that what Anderson describes is closer to the ideal towards which his hierarchical system strives rather than the reality.  I’m certainly aware of many failure modes that would prevent a hierarchical system from working nearly so well as it’s presented in the book.  I think of it as a variation on the likable / wish-fulfillment protagonist problem; it’s really not actually much of a problem, so long as we remain aware of the fact that we’re idealizing the subjects of our attention, be they characters or systems of governance.

Also, I found the gender relations of the human characters (and characterizations of the male vs. female human characters) to be pretty frustrating.  I had a hard time taking the characterizations of the male and female leads seriously, because they seemed so stereotypically 1940s to me.  At a guess, Anderson was trying to ensure that these things were appropriate for a group of people in the US Navy in 1942 (unsurprising given his previous work as a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries), and I’m ok with that for the most part even though it turned me off the book to some extent (some things, methinks, are better left in the 1940s).  But he doesn’t really explore any of the disconnect between the humans’ attitudes and those of their newfound allies in this first book.  If/when he does get around to exploring that, and looking at the ramifications of further association between their two cultures, I think that has the potential to be super interesting.  If he just glosses over that topic over the next several books, I suspect I’d be a bit disappointed.

So!  If you’ve read and enjoyed Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, or Flint’s 1632, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book as well.  If you haven’t read them but are intrigued by the idea of a group of wanderers on the seas of time and space, doing their best to reestablish themselves safely in a dangerous and not-so-subtly different world, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.  If you don’t think you can tolerate some nearly-stereotypically-1940s gender roles, or some very nearly Apocalypse World-like shenanigans, maybe wait and see what I have to see about the next book before deciding whether this one is worth it.

Eric Flint and Determined Optimism

I love reading Eric Flint’s books.  Even when they’re not especially “good,” per se, I still go out of my way to get my hands on them.  There’s something special about the way that he constructs story-worlds that I find captivating, and I think I may finally have some of the right words for it.  Time and again, I’m struck by the way in which his stories convey a rigorously optimistic, idealistic world view; his protagonists work together to create a better world, or a better future, or a better something else, but there’s always the underlying presence of cooperating with others in order to improve upon what already exists.  I don’t always agree with everything that he writes, but given a choice between an Eric Flint-esque book and something less hopeful, I’ll pretty much always pick Flint (or at least return to Flint after a jaunt elsewhere).

Part of it has to do with inspiration, and part of it has to do with my personal headspace.  I consistently reference the need for inspiration towards something better when I review Flint’s books, often referring back to my article on Schindler’s List.  I sometimes feel willfully self-deceptive when I consciously shape my media consumption like this, but I find that my own outlook on life is far more positive and constructive when I make sure that I balance my media intake with more hopeful and inspiring stories.

All of which is to say that I find that Flint’s writing serves a very distinct purpose.  I like his work more for the fact that he very specifically introduces such positive people and/or groups into his stories; I find it tremendously reassuring to read about people consciously working together to create a better world, and I often feel more empowered to do the same after reading his work.  It makes a nice counterweight to my research into things like sex slavery, MKUltra, or Operation Condor.  There’s something refreshing to Flint’s idealistic community organizing that helps to clean out the toxicity of the horribly sinister things that we human beings have routinely done to each other.

I think there’s more to be covered here, but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.  What do you think?  Do you have similar mental health management strategies?  Do you actively seek inspiration in the media that you consume?

1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon

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This scene doesn’t happen, but doesn’t it look nice?

My review has been delayed by other distractions, but I read most of 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies before it actually came out.  You see, I’m infatuated with the 1632 universe.  I think that’s at least in part because the series offers a far more optimistic take on the world than most of the other fiction that I read.  If you already know that you don’t like the series, I doubt this book will change your mind… but if you do like them, you’ll want to take a look.  I’m not totally sold on it, and yet I still love it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, this book is a clear sequel to the Baltic War storyline, but it also incorporates at least two other storylines into the mix, with other elements thrown in from the rich milieu which has developed in the rest of the 163X stories.  It’s clearly intended to start a new set of storylines, several of which seem like they deserve their own books, or at least their own short stories.  I can see why they tried to fit so much into this book, but I feel like they ended up trying for too much and then ended up without quite enough to satisfy me with each of the individual stories.

But maybe the piecemeal way in which I read the book has done it a disservice.  I got early partial copies as soon as they became available and, like the literary glutton that I am, devoured each morsel as quickly as I could.  Like I said, it’s an infatuation.  While I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself from reading new 163X books as fast as I can, I resolve to start over from the beginning next time once the whole book becomes available.  I’ll probably re-read 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies some time soon to see just how much of my impressions came from the disjointed nature of my reading.

Now then, how about my thoughts on the material itself?

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1636: Seas of Fortune, by Iver Cooper

I read this book in halting installments; not because I couldn’t get through it quickly, but because I read each section as it became available, starting two months before its ostensible publishing date.  I don’t know whether that says more about the book or about my love for the series started by Eric Flint‘s 1632.  I can say that I would certainly recommend this one to anyone else who has enjoyed the previous books in the series.  Read on past the break to find my more nuanced thoughts on Iver Cooper‘s 1636: Seas of Fortune.

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Burdens of the Dead, by Flint, Freer & Lackey

The next installment in the Heirs of Alexandria series is here!  It took me all of three days to read it, tops, and that was while I was doing other things.  Actually it might have been two days, I kind of lost track.  Burdens of the Dead offers yet another compulsive read, much like the other books in the series, and explores a fantastical Renaissance-that-might-have-been in which magic works, demons plot the conquest of mankind, and forgotten gods still roam the Earth.  If you haven’t read the other books in the series and any of that piques your interest, I strongly recommend that you pick up The Shadow of the Lion, the first installment in the series.  I really love this series…

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1636: The Devil’s Opera, by David Carrico and Eric Flint

Within several hours of writing my piece last week, I had already finished reading 1636: The Devil’s Opera, meaning that I went through it in slightly more than one day despite several interruptions.  It’s an addictive delight, just as I had anticipated it would be.  In that way, it is completely in keeping with what I’ve come to expect from Eric Flint, and from his 1632 series.  And now I want to go back to see what else David Carrico has on offer.  He seems promising, and if his other works are anywhere near as good as this one, I’ll be happy to read them.  Now then, about this book…

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